A Letter from Jeremiah Denton, a former POW in Viet Nam, who became a Senator from his state to the U.S. Congress. Because of his experience, and because I knew he was a Christian, I asked him his views on War and Pacifism as I struggled to understand a proper Christian response while a student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Wash. D.C.
My original letter is long gone, but the responses reveal the original concerns well.
JEREMIAH A. DENTON, JR.
UNITED States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
11 January 1982
Mr. Jeff Peterson
2701 Cameron Mills Road
Alexandria, Virginia 22302
Dear Mr. Peterson:
I appreciate your thoughtful letter of December 22, 1981, for I share your concern about the fundamental questions you raise.
The issues are among the most difficult humanity has had to confront, for they appear in the writings of mankind’s greatest thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to the modern day. All these great minds have wrestled with the difficult moral decisions involved in the use of force against others, and with the dilemma of “just” and “unjust” wars. They have confronted the unfortunate fact that many of the greatest wars have been fought in behalf of transcendental causes and that God has frequently been invoked by both sides in the same struggle.
I believe that there is a fundamental difference between the suffering one may undergo as an individual and the suffering others may undergo if one fails to act. Our nation has had to fight to protect the life and liberty of its citizens. A governmental official such as a policeman acts not as an individual but on behalf of the population, for it is an essential function of government to protect the safety and rights of its citizens. Similarly, one may argue cogently that the international community may act to preserve order in the world.
Whether or not a government is legitimate, and therefore whether an attempt to overthrow it is legitimate, is very much in the eye of the beholder. While Peter said that government was instituted to preserve order and justice, I do not believe one can interpret that to mean that all specific governments as they now exist, or as they existed at any time in the past, are divinely ordained. In our tradition, we have tended to conclude that the legitimacy of a government is determined by the support of those governed; this view is shared by other civilizations, as illustrated by the Chinese concept of “the mandate of heaven.”
It is all too easy, in the abstract, to define the poles of the spectrum, with “legitimate government” and “legitimate use of force” at one end and their opposites on the other. The problem arises from the fact that, as you so correctly note, when it comes down to a specific case in the real world, the decisions are by no means so easy. Throughout history, men have justified the use of violence for purposes that we now consider “evil” as well as purposes we now view as “good.”
Frequently, and perhaps essentially, decisions on these matters come down to an individual decision, which, if we accept the idea that God accords Man free will, is perhaps as it should be. I, for example, do not object to legitimate conscientious objection, which has a splendid tradition in this country. Throughout our history, many have chosen to follow that course, to accept the social consequences of their acts, and to go on to win honored places in society. This speaks eloquently both of the high principles of those men and of the greatness of a tradition that allows, accepts, and indeed honors individual moral decision.
In my own case, while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, I chose to suffer personally rather than to compromise the interests of my country, my oath as a Naval officer, and the welfare of my comrades. I did not then, and do not now, believe that the President had an obligation, moral or otherwise, to sacrifice the interests of the nation to obtain my release. There was, obviously, an easier course for me to follow. That I chose the more difficult was my own personal decision based on my own moral and religious convictions.
In my judgment, you are correct in your assessment that our nation cannot rely only on force to preserve itself and its values. There must be a balance with humanitarian efforts, whether through foreign assistance or other means. Yet, in turn, we cannot rely solely on such means, for they will not prevail against those forces inimical to us. There must be a balance between force and humanitarianism, and the maintenance of an effective defense posture will make it possible for us to be even more charitable.
My task, indeed my obligation, is to act in a way that serves the best interests not of myself but of others. I must see that our country maintains a sound defense posture. I must, in all conscience, support the building of guns and missiles so that we can both preserve our freedom and have an opportunity to win the trust of others. One day, I pray, we may be able to do away with the weapons of war.
I commend you on the course upon which you have embarked at Wesley Theological Seminary. Your letter illustrates your commitment and your deep concerns. I hope that you will read as extensively as possible among the great writers and philosophers who have wrestled with these same questions. I hope you will accept the
fact that the world is less than ideal, that it has both good and evil present in it, and that one must be charitable toward and understanding of the views and actions of others. And, finally, I hope that you will bring care, compassion, and concern to your responses to those who will turn to you for the guidance and the sustenance they will require you to provide.
May God bless you in your study and in your work.
United States Senator